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Lots of embarrassing things can happen in high school, like having poison ivy on your face on the first day of school or almost throwing up during your English presentation (we know, it happened to us). But being inexperienced when it comes to kissing and hooking up isn’t something to be embarrassed about.

In fact, more than 40 percent of high school students say they haven’t yet experienced their first kiss, according to a recent Student Health 101 survey. When it comes to getting physically intimate with someone—from kissing to sex—there’s no big rush. Nationwide, almost 60 percent of high school students have not had sexual intercourse, according to the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey.

Remember, having sex for the first time or hooking up with someone is an event you will probably remember for a long time (for better or worse). But there are some common misconceptions about hooking up that we should clear up:

Having sex or hooking up with someone will not:• Make you more mature • Fix a flawed relationship • Make someone love you • Fix a self-confidence problem

“There’s no hurry. Sex should never be hurried,” says Dr. Stephen Snyder, associate professor of psychiatry at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and certified sex therapist in New York City. “You have your whole life to be physically intimate. If there are too many bad feelings, then don’t rush it. Instead, you may want to tell your partner, ‘I’m not ready for that yet.’”

We asked students and sex therapy experts to give their advice on some important questions about physical intimacy. Here’s what they had to say.

Are you ready for the weekend? Easy question. Ready for physical intimacy? That’s a harder one.

Advice from the experts

“Ask yourself this: Do I feel comfortable? Do I feel pressured? Could I or someone else get hurt by this?”
—Dr. Klein

“Take it bit by bit, and at each step keep asking yourself, ‘Is this making me feel good or not?’ You don’t just want to have physical intimacy. You want to have good physical intimacy. It’s good if it makes you feel good about yourself. Sounds pretty basic, huh? Well, it would be, if sexual feelings were simple. But they’re usually not.”
—Dr. Snyder

Advice from students

“If you have any doubt, you shouldn’t follow through. It should be completely natural and it should be with someone you trust.”
—Kyle, junior, Simsbury, Connecticut

“You are ready if you feel comfortable with the other person. Don’t feel pressured by peers or society, and understand all of the possible consequences.”
—Mary, senior, Andover, Massachusetts

It’s easy for your feelings about someone to make you feel mixed up about what you want. Checking in with yourself is key.

Advice from the experts

“People have physical intimacy for a wide variety of reasons—and often for more than one reason. You’ll never be able to consider all the reasons in enough detail to make a decision. Instead, pay close attention to how the physical intimacy you’ve had so far is making you feel.”
—Dr. Snyder

“It makes sense to listen to both parts of your brain when you are considering getting physically intimate with another person. You have an emotional brain, where feelings and sensations are experienced. You’ve also got a rational brain, which plans, thinks about things, and pays attention to consequences.”
—Dr. Zoldbrod

Advice from a student

“It would really depend on the person’s actions. If they respect my decisions and can wait a while then I could make my decision off of that.”
—Emily, junior, Brooklyn, New York

Think about the effect others might be having on you.

Advice from the experts

“Usually the pressure comes from peers. Tell them: ’I’m very attracted to [this person], and I feel they love me, but we’re taking our time.’ It feels really good to follow our own feelings, rather than just do what everyone else is doing.”
—Dr. Snyder

It’s OK to have a sassy retort. “You can say: ‘Of course people want to [hook up] with me, but I’m deciding that I want to be picky.’ It’s OK to tell people to back off and that this is really none of their business.”
—Dr. Zoldbrod

Advice from students

“My friends share the same values, which is an important trait so that you do not feel pressured by them.”
—Emma, junior, Indianapolis, Indiana

“I wouldn’t let anybody push me into something I wasn’t ready for, or something I didn’t want to do. I’m a leader, not a follower.”
—Katy, recent graduate, Uxbridge, Massachusetts

“This decision is mine. No one can make this choice for me. Many teens nowadays feel pressure from society that ‘it’s the right thing’ to do because [they think] everyone is doing it.”
—Jamie, senior, Indianapolis, Indiana

In the moment we can get carried away. Intimacy is something we need to think about beforehand.

Advice from the experts

“Like any other intoxicating substance, sexual excitement can impair your judgment. It’s best to consider your feelings before you make decisions about physical intimacy.”
—Dr. Snyder

“As a young person, your physical urges for sex are extremely strong—the strongest that they will be in your entire life. So if you are feeling strongly physically attracted to someone and you want to get close physically, just take a step back, congratulate yourself for being totally alive, and take it with a grain of salt. Ask yourself to use your rational brain and see if you have a reason to trust this person.”
—Dr. Zoldbrod

Advice from a student

“I think you just have a feeling. You need to give it time and shouldn’t give in to hormones.”
—Rebecca, junior, Indianapolis, Indiana

Among teens who have had sex, about 63 percent say their first sexual experience was with a steady partner (as opposed to someone they had just met or a friend), according to a nationwide 2013 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Advice from the experts

“Think about the physically intimate things you [may have] already done with your partner so far. Have they left you feeling good about yourself? If so, then you may be ready to go further.”
—Dr. Snyder

“[The other person] should understand what makes you tick. Once you are physically involved with them, you will feel a whole new level of vulnerability. Is this person a good communicator? Do they respect boundaries you have set around non-sexual issues? Are you happy with your non-sexual physical relationship already? Before you share physical intimacy with another person, review these other aspects of your history and your relationship with them.”
—Dr. Zoldbrod

Advice from students

“They have to be ready to discuss intimacy with their partner and be willing to listen to and respect their partner.”
—Drew, recent graduate, Andover, Massachusetts

“This person is ready to share their body with another person because they love themselves and they want to express that love with someone else. This self-love is impossible to gain if rushed or forced.”
—Shayna, senior, Brooklyn, New York

If you’ve decided to hook up with someone, the best protection from STIs is to use a barrier method (something that creates a physical barrier between body parts, such as condoms and dental dams). This should be used for all types of sex—including vaginal, anal, and oral—whether it’s between people of the same sex or opposite sex. To prevent pregnancy, you’ll also want to use a backup method of birth control, such as the pill.

Learn the correct way to put on a condom.

Here are some important facts to know:

  • When used correctly every time, condoms are 98 percent effective at preventing pregnancy. Condoms are also one of the best ways to protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Remember, you can also get STIs from oral sex, so it’s important to use a condom or a dental dam for that too. Don’t know what a dental dam is or how to use one? Learn more here. 
  • The pill is more than 99 percent effective at preventing pregnancy (with perfect use), but it doesn’t stop STIs, so always use a condom too. Talk to your health care provider about how to get contraceptives, and check out this resource for more info. 
  • If you have vaginal sex and don’t use birth control, or if your condom breaks, emergency contraception is a good option.
  • Whenever you start having sexual contact (including oral sex), always protect yourself against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Find out how here. 
  • Find the type of birth control method that’s right for you at bedsider.org.

Make sure you get consent: Use the “Ask before you touch” rule. Consent helps you respect your partner and discover what they like. Here are a few examples of what you can say:

  • “Is this OK?”
  • Respect your partner’s choice if they want to slow down: “No worries, I understand.”
  • Check along the way: “How does that feel?”
  • Don’t assume they want it again. You have to get consent each time: “You’re comfortable doing this again?”

Learn the ins and outs of consent.

Age of consent

The age of consent (when you can legally consent to have sex) can vary depending on where you live. Having sex with someone who is too young to legally give their permission is considered statutory rape, and it can have major consequences. Look up your state law to find out the age of consent for both you and your partner.

Find out more about age of consent laws. 

A note about family stuff

The way we grew up can affect our decisions. Our experts offer some advice. 

“If you grew up in a family where someone in the family (maybe you) experienced emotional abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, physical abuse, or sexual abuse, you have to be especially careful when deciding whether to become physically intimate with another person. Growing up in a family with these kinds of experiences can impact your ability to make judgments about people and can affect your self-esteem and sense of being lovable. It may also make you want to get comfort and acceptance through a sexual relationship before it is really safe to do so.”
—Dr. Zoldbrod.

What can you do if you have these types of family issues and want to be intimate?

“Sometimes a person’s emotional foundation may not be as strong as it needs to be for physical intimacy due to past experiences of abuse, neglect, or other issues. Your mind or body may give you a sign that something isn’t quite right, and that you may not yet be ready. Some of the more common signs include depression, feeling physically unwell, trouble sleeping or concentrating, anxiety attacks, or dissociation (feeling numb or that you’re not completely present).”
—Dr. Zoldbrod

If you are in this situation, Dr. Zoldbrod and Dr. Snyder offer this advice:

“Work on establishing non-sexual friendships first with people of both sexes. This will teach you a lot about yourself and about negotiating different styles and needs.” —Dr. Zoldbrod

“If you’re just doing it for comfort or acceptance, then usually it will give you a kind of icky feeling that says ‘I don’t really feel like me when I’m doing this.’ What you want instead is a feeling of ‘Yes, this is me. I feel good here with this partner.’”
—Dr. Snyder

“If you just have a gut feeling that you’re not ready, you can tell your partner: ‘I’m very attracted to you, but I’m just not emotionally ready yet to be physical with you.’ That takes courage to say. People tend to admire courage, so your partner’s reaction might be more positive than you expected.”
—Dr. Snyder

Talking to a trained professional can help. Reach out to your school counselor or use the American Psychological Association’s search tool to find a qualified counselor in your area.

*All student names changed for privacy.

Our experts

Dr. Marty Klein

Licensed marriage and family therapist, certified sex therapist, Palo Alto, California

Dr. Stephen Snyder

Associate professor of psychiatry, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, certified sex therapist, New York City

Dr. Aline Zoldbrod

Author, psychologist, and certified sex therapist, Lexington, Massachusetts

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Article sources

Aline Zoldbrod, PhD, certified sex therapist, Lexington, Massachusetts.

Marty Klein, PhD, certified sex therapist, Palo Alto, California.

Stephen Snyder, MD, associate professor of psychiatry, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, certified sex therapist,New York, New York.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Key statistics from the national survey of family growth. Retrieved from
http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nsfg/key_statistics/s.htm#sexualactivity

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). Sexual behavior, sexual attraction, and sexual identity in the United States: Data from the 2006–2010 national survey of family growth. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr036.pdf

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Youth risk behavior surveillance—United States, 2015. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/ss/ss6506a1.htm

Guttmacher Institute. (2016, September). American teens’ sexual and reproductive health.
Retrieved from https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/american-teens-sexual-and-reproductive-health

Planned Parenthood. (n.d.). Condom. Retrieved from http://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/birth-control/condom

Planned Parenthood. (n.d.).The ten biggest myths about sex. Retrieved from http://www.plannedparenthood.org/teens/sex/the-ten-biggest-myths-about-sex

Student Health 101. (2015, April) No blurred lines: clarifying consent. Retrieved from http://readsh101.com/0215/08/demo.html